The Rochester Rhinos are hosting the USL Final.
On Saturday night the Rhinos played Louisville City FC in Sahlen's Stadium and won in typical Bob Lilley fashion. The team pressured early, scored in the first half, and defended well for the rest of the match. After the final whistle, Dave Wagner, Vice President of Competition and Operations for USL, presented Rochester with the Eastern Conference trophy.
Tony Walls, the captain of the team and a natural leader on the field, set the pace for the Rhinos early. Despite being outnumbered in the middle of the park, Walls rose to every challenge and did not back down from any extracurricular activity either.
Johnny Mendoza and Kenardo Forbes also started brightly for Rochester. Mendoza was the tireless workhorse that Rhinos' fans have come to expect while Forbes always seemed willing to dribble at an opponent. Both attacking midfielders were key to the early possession and shots that Rochester generated.
Kenardo Forbes stepped up to take a corner kick for Rochester 20 minutes into the game. Duba met the service with his head but Louisville's Scott Goodwin did well to save the powerful, low header. As the ball rolled in the goal-mouth, Goodwin reached for the ball while Walls was running in but Guy Abend attempted to clear. The poor clearance rolled directly to Vasili Apostolopoulos who was standing on the line at the top of the six-yard-box. The Greek defender reflexively stuck out his left foot and hit the ball into the open net to give Rochester the lead in the 21st minute.
The goal was Apostolopoulos's first for the Rhinos and was ultimately the game-winner. After the game the Greek defender spoke very frankly to media. He said that Rochester performs well in big games this season because everyone is on the same page and knows what his role is within the team. He admitted that he was perhaps fortunate on the goal that the ball fell to him but he was confident that the team would have scored either way.
Saturday night marked the third time Matt Fondy faced the Rhinos this season and the third time he was held without a shot. In 270 minutes against Rochester, the league's goal-scoring leader had 0 goals, 0 shots, and 1 assist. Rhinos goalkeeper Brandon Miller talked after the game about how the team has limited the success of Fondy.
"Obviously it starts up top but our midfield does a great job of coming back and back-pressing. So when Fondy does get that chance to take a touch or bring the ball down, he's got two guys on him; he's got one behind and one in front so it's hard for him to turn."
"The communication is there between our centerbacks and our outside backs. If Fondy is making his move, we're talking to each other, covering for each other," Miller said. "I think the organization is just perfect."
In the 83rd minute, the Rochester's forward Steevan Humberto Fortes "Duba" dos Santos was sent off for headbutting Louisville's Aodhan Quinn. Quinn had stamped on Duba's chest seconds earlier and in full view of the referee Duba reacted by striking his opponent with his forehead. The dismissal was clearly justified but the officiating crew had lost any semblance of control over the proceedings long before that incident.
Rochester head coach Bob Lilley had passionate comments about the sending off after the game. "The guy's human. He was fouled all night. The ref chose to give us yellows every time, I thought he was lenient with their players."
"Listen, it was a mistake on his part and it's a mistake that we're going to have to overcome. But we're a team and now it's just up to other guys stepping up." Lilley took a deep breath before adding, "Steevan works as hard as anyone. He cares as much as anyone. I'm sure he's gutted right now."
Both Lilley and Miller spoke about the importance of Tony Walls to the team. Talking about the bite that Tony gives the team in midfield, Miller said, "I just think physical play is a staple of our midfield. We're not going to lose battles in the air or on the ground. We're a physical team. You've got someone like Tony in the middle who's just going to take care of any type of physical battle."
Lilley echoed that sentiment and praised the strong performance of his captain. "I think once again you see the presence Tony Walls was, disrupting plays. He was outnumbered for much of the game with how we were playing him and releasing guys. He had to deal with a lot of skilled players and he never stopped working."
Walls embodied his role as captain in his post-game comments. "I'm really proud of this group. It was a big playoff game, a good team, but we brought the same mentality we've brought all year. We didn't give them anything, the top goal-scoring team in the league. Whatever you want to read [into it], whatever you want to write, I didn't see it again tonight."
"The first half was all us," Walls said. "In the second half I think they switched their tactics a little bit. They're weren't playing through us, they would try to go over the top and they made it a little open game. But we adjust, that's what we've done all year. We played in Harrisburg 80 minutes a man down and still won 3-1," said Walls, referring to the Third Round U.S. Open Cup match on the road.
The second-year Rhino seemed to relish the challenge of the USL Final against either OKC Energy FC or LA Galaxy II. "Whatever anyone's gonna throw at us, we're going to adjust, and we're going to get it done." Regarding the prospect of playing the final without Duba, who scored 8 goals in the regular season and 2 in the playoffs, Walls laughed saying "Coach Lilley's a genius, I'm sure he'll sit down and figure something out. I'm not too worried about it."
Rochester defended well particularly for the final seven minutes of regulation and the five announced minutes of stoppage time. Bob Lilley spoke after the game about the work rate of his players despite tired legs at the end of the match.
"Everyone defended at the end, a lot of guys went in sooner than I thought," Lilley said. "But we kinda had to with some injury tweaks and fatigue and obviously there was some reorganization when we went down to 10 men, as well."
Lilley was nearly beaming with pride at his team's execution of defensive organization. "If we can close with 10 men against the highest scoring offense in the league, if we can close out a man down that well, it says a lot about the character of our guys."
Rochester will host the winner of Sunday's Western Conference Final between OKC Energy FC and LA Galaxy II. The USL Final will be on Friday, October 16th at 7pm from Sahlen's Stadium.